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AFTER THE GOLDEN AGE for 09/10/2001
Volume 2, Number 19
The Movie I Wish I Hadn't Seen
On this site, some months ago, someone asked me whether I had seen the Jackson Pollock movie. My answer at that time was "no." It simply hadn't been available to me back then. Not out here in the boondocks, as my publisher recently described Chesterville, mourning to a Canadian reporter that, had I not buried myself here, I might not have been "lost to history." What he meant was that thanks to my mid-octogenarian status and the haunts I had frequented from my twenties onward, I had met and lived among people and events important enough to invite lots of speculation but too far back in time to be remembered clearly. One among those people was Jackson Pollock. But recently, a copy of the movie showed up in the local drugstore's video section and I rented it.
That evening, for ninety minutes, I watched one of the worst movies I've seen in years. Never mind that it seemed jumpy, disconnected and badly edited. Worse than that, I came away with the feeling that it was a sensational attempt to show Jackson, as nothing but an empty headed drunk who in some accidental fashion, because he discovered drip painting, had turned the art world upside down. But there seemed to be little explanation for why such a powerful reaction to Pollock's work had taken place, since the picture failed to come to grips with why Pollock was doing what he did. So that where the drinking was just an unrelated illness that interfered with what he was really doing until it finally killed him, the movie gave the impression that the drinking and the painting were somehow causally related. Because the only Pollock it showed us was the drinker with the wife who sedulously tried to keep him from alcohol so he could continue working. It was all very confusing except for the fact that at moments it caught something recognizably like the personality of Lee Krasner, his wife. That's the very best I can say for it.
They portrayed Peggy Guggenheim, who initiated that remarkable gallery, Art of This Century, with profound misunderstanding as well, mostly dwelling on her shrewdness, her alcoholism and her raunchiness, although it seems to me entirely likely that by her single handed efforts she succeeded in shifting the center of gravity of modern painting from Paris to New York. To accomplish something so portentous required taste, a true sense of the period and an awareness of the rapidly occurring shifts taking place in a once European cosmopolitanism that was now beginning to form a strong American base.
I knew Peggy briefly. I know she drank. heavily. I would even say it was one of the folkways of her own monied but still Bohemian world. I recall the one long conversation I had with her when my wife of that time, Marjorie McKee, was having her own show at the gallery. Peggy was wearing a gold lamé dress at a time when that kind of gold was selling for about three hundred dollars an ounce. She was somewhat off-balance from alcohol, so that she had to lean on me occasionally for support, even having difficulty now and then keeping her eyelids from dropping down over her great brown lovely eyes. Yet she had a lot to say to me and she was making perfect sense. She was spilling over but she wasn't drunk except in a physical way. I also remember her as a lot prettier than she was portrayed in the movie, although it did manage to achieve a credible but superficial likeness. I also realized that she understood a lot more about what Pollock was trying to do than the critics who praised him for the wrong reasons, like Clem Greenberg who among others was presumed to be one of her "advisors."
One of these days, early next year, you'll finally be able to buy the fully updated sequel to my current book, The Blowtop. It will appear under the title: No Such Mirrors. It was rhe original draft of this work which Willem De Kooning, years back, was trying to persuade Grove Press to publish on the grounds that "it's the only novel I ever read that understands the painter from the inside", but which Greenberg managed to veto because, I was told, he'd convinced himself that my unfavorable portrait of a certain art critic bore an uncomfortable resemblance to himself. All right, I'll skip the personal peeves for now and get back to Pollock.
I happen to know a great deal about what Pollock was trying to do, things about which the movie lacked the least clue. It was sloppy and derelict in that it never really touched on his exposure to the great tradition of the Navajo sand painters even when his working on the floor would have underlined it. Nor did it mention the one painter Pollock admired above all, Marsden Hartley. Mention only was made that he studied with Thomas Hart Benton, America's great depression muralist who couldn't draw and certainly couldn't manage to set a figure on the floor. In fact, no artist I ever knew in comics got by with such bad drawing except a single one, and he had something to do with Batman. But for that matter, the bad Batman drawing happened most fortuitously to lend special credence to the weird and malformed characters that were writer Bill Finger's great stock-in-trade.
Though Marjorie and Lee and Jackson and I would sit up for hours during the night discussing ideas about art, and we drifted into notions very strange and far afield from the standard critical perspectives and notions of the day, I don't think telling about them is a way to explain them. As dawn approached after one of those long intense nights, we were all aware that Greenberg was expected later that day to "evaluate" Jackson's recent paintings. "Do you intend to bring up some if the things we discussed tonight?" I asked innocently. Jackson and Lee both eyed me mischievously. "We're not crazy yet," Jackson said.
Now I do not think Jackson Pollock was one of the world's great painters. He really couldn't draw in the sense that drawing was then thought of. Benton had seen to that. But there was something else that was rather special. I would therefore avoid discussing Jackson's work in what might be called "an art critic context." Not an easy thing to do. But the movie gave me a clue.It recalled something interesting that happened in a scene showing with remarkable accuracy the inside of the Springs local general store run by a man named Dan Miller. In fact, that particular scene awakened a bunch of old memories. The store looked exactly the same as I remembered it years ago. And the man supposed to be Dan Miller, well, he did remind me of Dan Miller, especially in the take where Jackson is seen bringing in one of his paintings to Dan in exchange for groceries. I seem to remember an amount of $300. And suddenly I had a picture of the whole thing, not only of what Jackson was trying to do in his painting but what that kind of painting did to a man like Dan Miller who had lived all his life in the little fishing village of Springs, Long Island.
Interesting side note, almost all the locals were surnamed Miller. I remember one morning going to buy clams from a fisherman named Miller, then bringing some clothes of ours over to a laundress named Miller, and finally doing some shopping for the rest of our dinner at Dan Miller's General Store. None of these people currently considered themselves related. Anyway, I wrote a short story about Dan Miller buying that Pollock painting.
I think it explains more than criticism. I think it explains something rather unique about so-called non-representational, expressionist art. I'll be happy to print that story in my next column, perhaps my next two columns since it's a mite long. But I'd first like to have the assurance that this apparent departure from the comic arts (based on my assertion last week that the various arts are really drawing together) has both your approval and interest. Put out your thoughts on the message board.
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